In 2007, the department was deeply troubled. It was utterly failing as a service organisation, wracked by corruption and inefficiency, and the minister at the time, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula , realised the Band- Aid approach was part of the reason so little success was being achieved in improving performance. A high-level intervention team was appointed to conduct a detailed diagnostic of the root causes of the department’s failings. Its recommendations highlighted the need for a programme of holistic change that would span all areas — a fundamental transformation that would really focus on where it was needed most: the department’s faltering machinery and the lack of a service ethos.
From the outset, the minister knew this process would take time but she was clear that it was the only way. She emphasised the need to be ambitious about going to the core of the problems and steering away from superficial tweaks.
The aim was to turn a dysfunctional department into a modern, professional and streamlined organisation offering services to clients within internationally benchmarked time frames and enhancing customer experience through an improved service ethos.
The first step was to fix the broken processes driving the department’s core business: providing identity and travel documents to citizens. There should be no doubt about how challenging this task would be.
A recent Princeton University research report on public-sector reform across the developing world says the department’s transformation of the ID process was an "unequivocal success" and "unprecedented". The same report, however, starts out with an interview with a director of strategic planning at the department sketching the situation at the outset: "The working environment was disorganised. Applications were lying on the floor. People sometimes had to go through 50000 applications to find one."
Identity documents were taking longer than six months to be produced. Large numbers of citizens were applying for the same ID book numerous times "just in case", clogging the system and creating huge backlogs. There was no way for people to know when their documents were ready, so they were flooding the offices just to check on progress. An initial survey demonstrated that more than 40% of those in home affairs queues were there only for inquiries.
The turnaround strategy was designed around one core element — treating those who used the department as "customers". It was the minister’s view that if the department could be made to function more efficiently in the way it was delivering its services, all the rest would follow. Within the first year of launching the "customer-focused turnaround", the production time for ID books had been slashed by more than 80%, while passports were produced in half the time.
The focus was on fixing processes, but also on creating a more controlled and effective working environment for officials through improved operations management.
With this approach, using existing staff and resources (and no fancy information technology solutions), productivity was increased in key bottleneck areas in the ID production facility by more than 300%. In the refugee section, output of status determination was increased by 800%. In line with the focus on enhancing customer satisfaction, a hugely successful electronic track-and-trace system was rolled out.
An electronic fingerprint verification system was put in place allowing for real-time checking of fingerprints and on-the-spot issuing of temporary ID certificates. A state- of-the-art new contact centre was handling 1- million customer queries within the first year. A particular sense of achievement, given the department’s bad reputation for letting phones ring, was that 95% of all calls were being answered within 20 seconds and 95% of inquiries were resolved on first contact.
By 2009, the enhanced customer experience was slowly filtering through to the public. The offices were far less congested and staff were reporting that they were receiving far less flak from customers. All through this time the boxes for sustainability were being ticked: all production gains were being maintained and the improved turnaround times for all the key documents were becoming entrenched.
Other areas were now also receiving attention. A key area was the general finance environment. When the turnaround started, the department’s last audit report had been a disclaimer. The financial systems were broken and controls were very poor. It was clear to everyone there was no quick fix for this problem and that it would take a number of years to attain a clean bill of health.
Once again, superficial tweaks were not going to solve the issues. A solid foundation needed to be built and for this reason one of the largest teams in the project was the one dedicated to cleaning up the finances.
In the 2008- 09 auditor-general’s report, the department had moved one step closer to a clean audit. Of the more than 27 issues raised in the previous year’s report, only two remained. The auditor-general acknowledged the efforts, saying there was a "comprehensive turnaround strategy in place " and that there had been "significant improvement in the financial management and internal control processes". Elsewhere, the foundations were being laid — specifically in the arena of procurement and contract management. By the end of 2009, savings of nearly R250m had been realised through improved contracting and procurement processes
So, by the end of 2009, two years after the turnaround started, the department had in place hugely improved customer services, a solid foundation in improving the financial and accounting processes, as well as significant savings in key areas.
The five-year turnaround that was envisaged when the first diagnostic kicked off in 2007 now had a very solid foundation.
In addition, the department had won awards for best public procurement project and customer contact centre in 2007, and first prize in the Technology in Government in Africa, Public Service Award for the ID transformation project in 2009. Possibly the greatest acknowledgment, however, that the department was out of intensive care was a 2009 customer satisfaction survey showing that 93% of its "customers" were impressed with the new waiting times for documents.
There is still much to do and many challenges confronting the department, but it has a head start in developing into a customer- focused and service-orientated department.
Mapisa-Nqakula, former director-general Mavuso Msimang, consultant leader Sven de Kock, the current minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma , the current director-general, Mkuseli Apleni, and their respective teams should be applauded for their contribution to a department that has embraced citizens as its clients and the only conceivable reason for their existence as public servants.
• Wakeford is former project adviser to Mapisa-Nqakula on the home affairs Turnaround Project.